How to increase your students’ digital acumen

Prepare students to make a bigger impact through technology.
By Mark Tosczak

In the last quarter century, software has transformed what accountants do and how they do it. CPAs need strong digital acumen — the ability to use technology and data analytics to understand, communicate, and solve business problems. That means accounting faculty need to ensure they're teaching those skills to future accountants.

"Accounting tasks such as information processing, analysis, and reporting, which have conventionally been a preserve of humans, continue to be automated while other tasks can now be easily outsourced to regions with cheaper labor costs," said Trust Chireka, a senior lecturer of accounting at Walter Sisulu University in South Africa. "To remain relevant in this modern world, it is critical that accounting students develop a strong digital/analytics mindset."

In addition to proficiency in software tools such as Excel, Alteryx, Microsoft Power BI, and Tableau, students must also understand analytical methods and how to communicate their findings. In some cases, it may be helpful for students to learn programming languages, such as Python and R, that are often used in data analytics.

Beyond specific programs, though, students must know the digital and data analytics concepts that will enable them to use new software tools in the future.

Changes to licensing exams reflect this digital focus. In the United States, the CPA Exam will change in 2024, so each person will take three core sections and then select a fourth section focused on an accounting discipline of their choice. Technology is one of the options.

Other countries are enacting similar changes. For instance, the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants has a new framework that emphasizes decision-making and digital expertise as critical competencies, Chireka said.

With these changes, there are plenty of reasons for faculty to integrate digital skills into their curriculum. However, as Chireka noted, "the accounting curriculum is already packed full of discipline-specific content."

The following tips can help accounting faculty ensure their students graduate with stronger digital acumen:

Make the material relevant. Christine Cheng, assistant professor of accountancy instruction at the University of Mississippi, says it's important to find ways to get students engaged with the material and meet them where they are.

"Pick a question they're going to be intimately interested in," she said. "I look at a lot of things we could teach them, but what are they likely to care about?"

One question her students explore is how some large, profitable companies end up not paying income taxes. That question fits with the tax curriculum she teaches.

With an engaging problem, Cheng leads students through the ETL process: extracting data from a source; transforming the dataset through analysis; and then loading it into a data visualization tool, such as Microsoft Power BI or Tableau, to communicate findings.

Teach software skills. A fundamental understanding of data concepts is critical, but students will also go to work in places where they'll be expected to know common software applications from day one — especially Excel. And they may be more competitive in the job market if they have software certifications on their résumés.

"For years, as educators, we've been told that the weakest point of our students is Excel skills," Cheng said. "At the end of the day the bedrock of accounting, and communications with decision-makers universally, is still largely operating in Excel."

Cheng, along with colleagues, has created hundreds of YouTube tutorials exploring key software tools and analysis. Examples include detecting insurance claim fraud and using state-level IRS files to track migration across state lines.

In South Africa, Chireka's university has worked with private sector partners to offer courses in key software applications, including Excel and Sage's Pastel accounting application. Students who pass these short courses, Chireka said, earn industry certificates attesting to their skills. AICPA & CIMA also offer data analytics certificates.

Amy J. N. Yurko, associate professor of accounting at Duquesne University, has her students use SAS, Tableau, and Alteryx, in addition to Excel, to give them exposure to commonly used applications.

Focus on technology. While integrating some technology into accounting courses is part of the solution to boost students' digital acumen, students can also benefit from courses where technology is the main focus.

Yurko teaches a master's class that focuses on data analytics for accountants.

Making technology the focus of a stand-alone course relieves some of the pressure to fit all the digital analytics material into other courses centered on core accounting knowledge. "It's meant to be building on students who have their core undergraduate accounting knowledge," she said.

The course combines core analytics knowledge, including teaching students how to extract, clean, and analyze data, along with application-specific lessons that cover everything from Excel to powerful tools such as SAS and Alteryx.

The process of moving from one tool to another through the course is rigorous, Yurko said, but "it gets them to think. It gets them adaptable."

She begins by presenting students with a question plus data of varying quality in a variety of formats. The goal is to guide them to design a plan to answer the question and transform the data to fit that plan. This requires students to think about data quality, identify inaccuracies, and fill in blanks where appropriate.

Teach them to communicate. As with most work done by accountants, it's not enough to simply come up with an answer. Results of an analysis must be communicated to decision-makers.

Software makes it easy to produce complex graphics and visualizations, but students must learn to distill the essential data into a digital story stakeholders will understand quickly and easily.

"At the end it comes in, but it's the most important — how do I communicate my findings to decision-makers?" Cheng said. "You have to teach them all of the fundamental soft skills that we've always needed in our profession."

Ask for help. Digital acumen, like everything else in accounting, is a moving target. The tools and techniques students need to learn continue to change, so faculty will also need to learn new skills.

Chireka works with faculty in other disciplines, such as computer science, to develop short courses on advanced topics, such as using the programming languages R and Python.

Accounting professors looking to add analytics to their teaching should draw on the extensive resources and tips available from peers. They can also explore effective teaching models and attend analytics workshops to prepare. Yurko said it's important for faculty to work through any projects they plan to assign to students.

"You have to have gone through the pain," she said. "As you work through the project, you learn so much about the software and where students will encounter roadblocks. Bottom line, you have to be able to do what you are asking them to do."

Mark Tosczak is founder and chief content strategist at Flying Car Communications in North Carolina. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Courtney Vien at

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